Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Liv Ullmann | Miss Julie

by Douglas Messerli

Liv Ullmann (screenplay, based on the drama by August Strindberg) and director Miss Julie / 2014

Liv Ullmann’s version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie begins with a young girl reading an account about her now dead mother before wandering through the estate house in which the young lives with her baronial father and escaping back into nature where she enacts a scene right out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet wherein Ophelia floats with the flowers in suicide. In fact, one almost suspects that, in this case, the young unhappy girl might attempt the same act; but we have the entire drama to go through before she actually accomplishes that act and, finally, rests on the riverbank amid flowers.
       What Ullmann makes clear is that this child is the same willful woman that we encounter in the rest of the work. Julie never truly grows up, remaining a tortured child throughout her life. Like a child, the adult Julie (Jessica Chastain) whimsically orders around her valet, John (Colin Farrell), as if he were a tin soldier with whom she was playing—a doll she loves and hates simultaneously. She simply cannot comprehend that a rather complex figure exists behind the necessarily obedient man, and when she finally comes to that recognition, after he has sexually abused this virginal child-woman, it is all too late. She has been destined to carry out her suicide from the very first scenes of the film.

      Almost inexplicably, Ullmann has shifted the location the play from her homeland of Sweden to Ireland—perhaps simply to accommodate Farrell’s homeland brogue. Certainly all the characters of this drama create an acting ensemble that is near perfect. Yet it makes little sense given that the events of the day in which John seduces her, or she seduces him, is Midsummer’s Day, a Swedish holiday that takes place when the sun never sets and, a bit like Mardi Gras, the wealthy celebrate with their servants, inviting them into their homes and embracing them in dances. Perhaps the Baron has purposely left the house so that he does not have participate. Does Ireland have such a festival day?
      Accordingly, much of this film is innately about nature, but like Strindberg’s original and the other great Miss Julie film by Alf Sjöberg, Ullmann’s characters hardly get out of the house in order to enjoy the sun; yet I’d argue that the kitchen-based drama is after all a claustrophobic work, and the brittle interchanges between them are as dark as the internal bowels of where John and the Baron’s cook, Kathleen (Samantha Morton), live.
      In all the productions I’ve seen of Miss Julie I’ve never been able to comprehend why John is engaged to the somewhat more elderly cook. But Ullmann attempts to explain it better than the others. Samantha is a loving and reliable woman of John’s class—a very central issue of this play. Yet the far more worldly John and the religiously devout cook still appear to be an odd match. And even he describes the fact that he has loved Julie from his childhood on and his had his share of young women during his life, particularly when he worked at a Lake Cuomo hotel in Switzerland, where he has also learned French.
      Ullmann opens up the role of the cook to a far more nuanced portrayal, showing us her behind-door tears and worries and demonstrating her innate morality by allowing the woman to give less poison to Julie’s dog—whom Julie wants dead simply because she has evidently bred with a stableman’s dog (a brutal expression of the horrors of the class structure in which Julie has grown up). When Kathleen admits to Miss Julie that she hasn’t administered the full poison to the dog, Julie turns the beast into a servant’s dog by handing it over to the cook. In expanding Kathleen’s role, Ullmann slightly ameliorates Strindberg’s misogynistic view of women.
      What Ullmann quite successfully accomplishes in this kitchen-bound drama is to show up the possibilities of both Julie and John’s closeted world by constantly moving her camera and characters to and through doors. Perhaps there has been no film director more aware of the power of opening and closing doors since Ernst Lubitsch. Even as they speak, characters are pushing toward doors before they retreat and return to the metaphoric boxing ring. And early on in this film, Julie taunts her foe by attempting to force him out of the kitchen by inviting him into the home’s environs, where he obviously feels uncomfortable. Of course, those large halls and rooms are her domain. He begins that interior voyage before bolting and returning to the room in which he finds more comfort in eating the kidney’s Kathleen has cooked up especially for him. In short, if she wants to seduce him, she must enter his territory. The war between them will not be fought, so he symbolically declares, on foreign territory. When he takes her virginity it will be in his bedroom, not hers.
      From the very beginning, as I previously mentioned, this is a story of the struggle of the classes as deeply felt as Karl Marx’s tract. Sex is only a camouflage, another kind of power-struggle embedded in the deeper class struggle. And Ullmann focuses on that battle more deeply than even Strindberg. Instead of the romantic love Julie might have imagined after sex, John demands that she steal her father’s money (it is fascinating that the valet knows where he hides it, obviously alluding to John’s watch-and-wait attitude all along) and join him in Switzerland in creating a hotel. The valet even suggests, at one point, that Kathleen come along to become a sort of head-cook in the imagined establishment.
      For a few moments (or seconds) each character of Ullmann’s version imagines various alternatives of “And…Then…Or,” before giving them up and returning to their old ways. Kathleen begs John to attend church with her, quickly abandoning any of her belief in any other world than the spiritual. And, although John is still enchanted with his first vision of Julie, he soon recognizes that there is no possible way out, particularly with the woman he now calls a “whore,” throwing the money at her before the Baron returns, leaving behind his knife so that she might accomplish what has been destined years earlier.
     As Ullmann seems to suggest in an interview in The Guardian, the tragedy of Miss Julie is that none of them can truly interrelate with the other, can recognize the other as a human being and admit their sorrow for their acts.

Los Angeles, June 5, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2019).

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